The biggest snowstorm in almost five years--punctuated by lightning and blizzard-like conditions--swirled up the Atlantic Coast on Saturday, closing airports, stopping train travel and forcing motorists to drive at a snail’s pace. At least one person died.
The mayors of Philadelphia and New York City declared snow emergencies as the storm stretched from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the southern tip of Maine in New England.
Passengers were stranded in terminals and in planes on the runways at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and at Newark International Airport in New Jersey. Officials closed both airports as the speed of the falling snow outpaced plows. Service at John F. Kennedy International Airport was reduced to a single runway.
Amtrak shut down its Metroliner service between New York and Washington, D.C., and New Jersey Transit suspended bus service in parts of the state where the snowfall was heaviest.
“This is a difficult storm,” said New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who pledged that tonight’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square would go on as scheduled.
“It may have the added benefit and beauty of snow in the background, so New York City will look even more beautiful,” the mayor said.
The storm, although serious, could not match the huge snowfall that virtually paralyzed the city in January 1996 when up to 30 inches fell in the region.
There was little warning for that storm, in contrast to Saturday’s snowfall, when officials had personnel, trucks, snowplows and salt spreaders poised even before the first flakes fell.
Weather forecasters predicted that the highest amounts--up to 30 inches--could blanket parts of New Jersey. Winds in excess of 30 mph whipped the snow into drifts that made plowing roads more difficult.
Officials originally predicted they would be able to clear the runways at LaGuardia Airport by 3 p.m. EST. But the storm quashed that hope.
“There are a fair number of people stranded at the airports,” Giuliani said.
Some passengers remained in terminals, hoping for late-night departures. The Red Cross sent cots to the airport to provide a measure of comfort. Taxi fleets were asked to dispatch extra cabs to LaGuardia to transport lines of people to Manhattan and other parts of the city where they planned to spend the night.
Across the nation, hundreds of flights to and from the New York area were canceled.
During the height of the storm on Saturday, 200 buses were stuck in the snow, unable to move in New York City.
“It was very difficult for people to get around,” said Giuliani. “I don’t want to minimize this was a difficult situation.”
The only death reported occurred in New Milford, N.J., where a car skidded off a road, killing the driver.
In Manhattan, there was a spate of snow blower accidents. Police reported 11 incidents; seven of those involved suffered severed fingers.
One person injured in a snow blower mishap was the superintendent of a building on the Upper West Side. Snow was falling heavily at noon; parents and children were riding sleds and building snowmen in nearby Riverside and Central parks when the superintendent’s snow blower jammed.
He reached a heavily gloved hand into the gears to check the machine when it suddenly sputtered back to life--cutting off the tips of three of his fingers.
An ambulance arrived in less than four minutes after residents called 911 for help.
“It takes more than this to shut us down,” said a paramedic riding in the ambulance. “We’re prepared for situations like this.”
Physicians at a nearby hospital were unable to reattach the man’s fingertips.
Despite the paramedic’s optimism, officials said the storm slowed ambulance response times in parts of the city, and they urged people to call 911 only for emergencies.
At Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, emergency room physicians reported a fairly normal day with no major injuries.
But Dr. Susi Vasallo, the physician in charge, said the hospital had admitted 10 homeless people who were found passed out in the snow.
“Where are they from?” she asked. “Their address is the snow.”
Along the East Coast, forecasters provided ample warning that the storm was approaching.
“Everyone was fully prepared,” said Don DiFrancesco, New Jersey’s acting governor. “They notified all their trucks a couple of days ago just to be sure they were all around. It was just a matter of getting up to speed.”
In the Garden State, about 1,500 plows worked to clear highways. On the New Jersey Turnpike, a 35 mph speed limit was imposed as blowing snow hampered visibility.
The National Weather Service reported 20 inches of snow in Vernon in the state’s northwestern corner. It said 25 inches had fallen at Randolph in Morris County.
In declaring an emergency in Philadelphia, Mayor John Street restricted downtown access to emergency vehicles.
In New York, this classic nor’easter softened the contours of the city, turning snow-coated trees and fire escapes into post-Christmas ornaments and streets into a photographers’ paradise. Nature added extra decoration to the towering Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.
“There is nothing like Manhattan in the snow,” said Bari Kaye, who plans to move with her husband and two children from her apartment to a house on Long Island in the spring. “I was hoping we would get more big snow while we were here.”
Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, with Giuliani at his side in the city’s Emergency Command Center, even issued a list of hills most favorable for sledding.
“You can sled practically anywhere there is a hill,” quipped Stern. “Gravity cooperates.”
Some, however, regarded the beauty as fleeting.
“Right now, it’s nice,” said Hector Moreno, a doorman standing near snow shovels. “Tomorrow, forget about it. It’s going to be a big mess.”
That opinion was seconded by Anuradha Murti, an administrative assistant for a performing arts company.
“Yes, it’s pretty,” she said. “When it comes to getting to work on Tuesday, though, I hope it’s all gone.”
Her wish was unlikely in the opinion of the weather service, which predicted below-freezing temperatures for much of the coming week.
City officials expressed relief that the storm occurred during a long holiday weekend--allowing enough cleanup time before the start of business on Tuesday.
And by evening, Giuliani, jovial and obviously pleased by progress, announced that Times Square was virtually clear of snow--ensuring normalcy for the ball drop marking the start of 2001. Broadway theaters remained open Saturday despite the storm.
Nevertheless, problems remained in other parts of the city, where some streets needed to be cleared and where dipping temperatures added to the hazards of driving.
Gov. George Pataki ordered 180 National Guard troops with 20 vehicles to help communities hardest hit by the storm in New York state. Shelters were opened throughout the state for people with power and heat problems.
Airlines serving Albany International Airport canceled 60 flights, and by evening, more than 9 inches of snow covered runways.
The weather service predicted that upstate, the snow could fall at the rate of two to three inches an hour.
In western Massachusetts, state police reported near-blizzard conditions.
In Arkansas, frigid temperatures and ice hampered electric workers as they struggled to restore power to more than 130,000 homes and businesses almost a week after a Christmas Day storm. A layer of ice up to half an inch thick remained on most trees and power lines from the ice storm Monday that devastated the southern Plains. In Texas and Oklahoma, a combined 100,000 homes and businesses remained in the dark.
Times staff writer Josh Getlin and Associated Press contributed to this story.